Q: I see Kate Moss is worth £20 million. I knew she was pretty well-off, but usually a model’s earning power seems to decline as she gets older. Kate’s 40 now. I see you’ve commented on her staying power in the Observer (above). But I wanted to ask you a different question: how do we Brits look at seriously rich celebrities?
Vicarious consumption is the key to understanding why we think she is worth it
A: Interesting question. Of course, Kate is rich, but not super-rich. I mean, Bill Gates, the richest man in the world is worth about £30 billion and counting. Simon Cowell is now worth £300m. David Bowie’s return last year saw his wealth expand to £135m. Pete Cashmore (no relation), who started the social media blog Mashable from a room in his parents’ house near Aberdeen, is said to be worth £120m. But I take your point: we don’t resent these people having so much money.
Q: But I can remember when we begrudged the rich having so much money, while the rest of us scrambled to make a living. When I was a student the rich were a class apart; in a sense they were the enemy in the class war. What happened?
A: First of all, we’ve seen the rise of a new class of rich people who have made their fortune not from industry, or business, but from services, specifically sport, media and other parts of what we might describe as popular entertainment. Think of the three rich Brits I named above: we’re all consumers of their products. Even if we don’t watch The X Factor, or buy Bowie albums, or use Mashable, we are all part of a culture in which these are integral parts. We’re surrounded by their products and effects.
Q: This is something to do with consumption, isn’t it?
A: It is. We used to place a lot of importance on how much money people had. Now we’re interested in how they spend it. So we read about how much money Kim Kardashian (below) earns, and we know she has what most people regard as limited, if any, talent. But do we begrudge her the money? Not while we get so pleasure from reading about her £6 million ($10 million) wedding. We expect wealthy celebrities to entertain us.
Q: Hang on. You’re saying we enjoy watching other people’s extravagance? We don’t mind them squandering ridiculous amounts of money?
A: That’s it, yes. Think of footballers and their cars. We’ve got past the point when we complain about the so-called obscene amounts of money they earn. We realize that they can earn that much because we’re prepared to pay so much to watch football and buy the products they advertise. So we expect them to provide us with amusement, not just on the football field, but in the way they waste their money. We find this gratifying.
Q: It’s a kind of vicarious consumption, right?
A: Good term: vicarious consumption. We experience in our imaginations how it must be to spend lavish amounts of money.
Q: But how about wealthy industrialists? They don’t entertain us.
A: Name one.
Q: Err …
A: Let me name a few: Srichand and Gopichand Hinduja, combined wealth, £11.9bn. Paul Sykes, the entrepreneur and property magnate who helped fund UKIP, has a fortune of £650m. We don’t get to hear about these people. If we did we would probably feel resentful and aggrieved that they have so much money, but don’t give us any value. I’m not saying they don’t create jobs, generate taxes and make a sizeable contribution to the UK economy. But they’re not in the media. That’s where we like the rich to be — right in our faces so we can see how they’re spending their money and, hopefully, getting into trouble doing it. Imagine if David and Victoria Beckham (worth £210m) stopped appearing in the media and drifted into obscurity. Not that this is likely to happen soon; but we’d think we were not getting much value out of them.
Q: So you’re saying consumption is so important now that we actually consume the rich.
A: That’s pretty much it: we know they’ve got rich thanks to our money and we want something back in return. As long as we are reminded about their expensive clothes, cars, houses, yachts, weddings and so on, we don’t mind. So I know people think Kate Moss has got rich just by appearing in fashionable places and looking good. But it wasn’t so long ago she was called “Cocaine Kate” and criticized for her dissipated lifestyle and her dodgy choices in men. She’s hardly ever been out of the limelight. And we’ve enjoy the Kate narrative so much, we’d probably miss her if she dropped off the radar.
Q: Let me summarize: while some time ago we were resentful of people who had a lot more money than the rest of us, we accept rich celebrities nowadays on the condition that they spend their money and maintain a lifestyle that we enjoy, albeit vicariously.
A: Yes. And remember: consumption isn’t just about buying stuff over the counter or online — though this is part of it. But it’s also about engaging with public figures, reading, watching, judging and talking about them in a manner we find agreeable. As long as they continue to amuse us, we’re prepared to accept their wealth. In other words, Kate Moss is probably worth her £20 million. @elliscashmore